Jam-packed with riveting perfs by some of the hottest underground Gotham bands of the early ’80s, “Downtown 81” is an extraordinary real-life snapshot of hip, arty, clubland Manhattan in the post-punk era. Helmer Edo Bertoglio and writer Glenn O’Brien have tapped into a very specific social and artistic zeitgeist with unusual accuracy, which is why it’s such a shame that so many of the other elements in this curiosity, originally shot in 1980-’81, fall so flat. The story is slight bordering on nonexistent, thesps are remarkably wooden — with the notable exception of the lead (acclaimed artist Jean Michel Basquiat) — and tale packs little emotional weight. Based on Basquiat’s reputation and cult interest in this musical subculture, the pic could elicit interest from specialty distribs, but it will have difficulty crossing over due to poetic structure and lack of anything remotely resembling a strong narrative.
The film, shot nearly 20 years ago, brings viewers right inside the pulsating heart of latenight Lower East Side New York in the No Wave period. Painter-graffiti-artist-musician Basquiat was 19 at the time, caught just months before he was transformed into a major figure in the world of modern art. (The painter, who died at the age of 27 in 1988, is also the subject of the 1996 biopic “Basquiat.”)
The “Downtown 81” filmmakers pulled together a rough cut of the pic shortly after lensing, but financial problems scuttled the project shortly thereafter. Post-production began again in 1999 after producer Maripol Fauque discovered lost footage. Much work was done to clean up the sound of musical recordings, and pic was blown up from original 16mm to 35mm.
The odd story opens with Jean (Basquiat) in a hospital bed, and, though viewers are never told what’s wrong with him, he’s soon back out on the streets, headed for home. Almost immediately, he meets a mysterious, beautiful woman, Beatrice (Anna Schroeder), in a convertible.
Things go downhill quickly when he returns home to find a furious landlord (Giorgio Giomelsky) who boots him out for not paying rent. He brings one of his paintings along as he hits the street, in the hope that he can sell the artwork.
Along the way, there’s a glimpse of a recording session with virtuoso guitarist Arto Lindsay and his group, DNA, and a sidebar story of a rock artist signing a contract with a corrupt record company rep.
Jean does manage to sell his painting to an older woman who’s enamored of him, but she pays by check, which doesn’t do much to help Jean in the short term.
To makes matters worse, he learns that all of his band’s instruments have been ripped off. At the same time, he’s desperately seeking the mystery woman he met in the opening segment.
He wanders the latenight streets, drops by a few clubs and then meets a bag lady (Debbie Harry), who turns into a princess after he kisses her and gives him all kinds of cash.
In his attempt to create a gritty urban fairy tale, O’Brien is at least partly successful. Pic relies heavily on voiceover narration, some of which is accompanied by music and most of which leans toward the poetic.
Basquiat was not able to finish all of the original voiceover, so poet and thesp Saul Williams (“Slam”) was brought in to do some of Basquiat’s narration, and it’s obvious there are two different voices on the soundtrack.
There’s a scene-maker charm to “Downtown 81,” and there’s no denying the natural charisma of Basquiat. Even better, the live-music sequences are steaming hot, particularly rocking numbers from discordant-guitar-heroes DNA, wonderful Caribbean-flavored dance band Kid Creole & the Coconuts and hysterical postmodern funk outfit James White and the Blacks.
But the hot rock perfs only serve to underline the muted impact of the dramatic scenes. There are no fully developed characters, not even Jean, and story is way too anecdotal, slipping into a succession of club, recording-studio and street scenes with no narrative drive.
Cast includes a slew of in-crowd folks in small roles, including rock manager Giomelsky as the ill-tempered landlord, former Rolling Stones Records president Marshall Chess as the thief, Mudd Club owner Steve Mass as an extra at the go-go bar, and Chris Stein and Clem Burke from Blondie as members of rock band the Felons.
Lensing by John McNulty does a great job of capturing nocturnal downtown New York, and, in addition to live performances, the soundtrack includes memorable tunes by rapper Melle Mel, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, Suicide and Basquiat’s band Gray.